All the presidential candidates are talking about big government. They want to make it more efficient. Some want to decentralize federal power to the states and a few would use big government to tame big business.
What they all want us to believe is that, if elected, they would use presidential power to serve the people.
But can delegated democratic systems (including the presidency) be responsive to the public without the parallel development of direct democratic systems to counteract the awesome entrenchment of special interest groups? This seems to me to be a central question which sincere candidates should feel obliged to ponder.
What are direct democratic systems? They are systems which permit people to have their problems or grievances directly addressed. They do not involve beseeching a legislature of a governor or a president to do it on their behalf, by proxy, so to speak.
There are five proposals for direct democracy which need to become part of the pre-election debate:
1. That the initiative, referendum and recall be adopted by all states and that there be a national initiative instituted. In about 20 states, mostly west of the Mississippi, these turn-of-the-century populist measures have been part of the state constitutions.
Citizen groups are beginning to revive the use of these direct democratic rights which permit voters to write their own laws (initiative), repeal measures passed by the legislature (referendum), and call back elected officials between elections (recall).
The People’s Lobby (3456 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90019), a major citizen activator of the initiative, is an information source on these measures.
2. A federal law to provide citizens with the right (or “standing”) to sue the federal government or officials for illegalities such as the misuse of White House aides and facilities in election campaigns.
Currently, because of recent Supreme Court decisions, citizens do not have this right. Only the government can sue to stop the government’s lawlessness.
That is not only unlikely in many cases — imagine the Attorney General taking the President or a presidential appointee to court —but antidemocratic as well. For the citizens are the last resort of corrective power in a genuine democracy. Open the courtroom door to them.
Give aggrieved citizens the right to initiate a disciplinary process toward civil servants for corruptive, wasteful, capricious or suppressive behavior. Regular non-enforcement of health and safety laws resulting in injury to persons from harmful products, for example, would be grounds for such an action.
Such civil service accountability directly to the people would encourage internal changes within the agency or departmental chain of command.
There- is nothing like citizens succeeding in securing the suspension, demotion, or expulsion of a government official to shake up the bureaucracy in the right way.
Permit consumers to file consumer and environmental class actions in federal courts against corporations who defraud or pollute. Presently, such class actions are very difficult to initiate.
If consumers can initiate legal actions for all consumers similarly cheated or harmed by a specific company, prevention of future abases is more likely to result along with repaying consumers for their damages.
Economic power for consumers is essential to make the corporate world more democratic. The encouragement of consumer cooperatives — consumer-owned retail businesses —can produce effective bargaining power in the marketplace and political power for consumer rights.
This form of private enterprise has great difficulty obtaining commercial bank credit. Food co-ops, for example, experience this problem all over the country.
There is pending in Congress a proposal (S.2631, HR 9743) to establish a national consumer cooperative finance institution to extend credit and technical assistance to consumer co-ops. Ownership of the institution will gradually shift to the co-ops themselves.
This bill is needed badly to balance the extensive government aid to profit-making, investor-owned corporations. (For more information, write to Sen. Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire or Rep. F.J. St. Germain of Rhode Island.